New Delhi: Nearly 29 per cent of the 2021 Padma awardees are personalities from the four states and one union territory headed for elections in April-May this year.
Of the 119 awardees, 34 are from Tamil Nadu (11), Assam (9), West Bengal (7), Kerala (6) and Puducherry (1).
The recipients include late Congress leader and former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, and Narayan Debnath, a veteran comics artist and illustrator from West Bengal. Late singing maestro S.P. Balasubrahmanyam from Tamil Nadu, table tennis player Mouma Das from West Bengal, and playback singer K.S. Chithra from Kerala are among the other winners.
Dhananjay Diwakar Sagdeo, a doctor in Wayanad — which is Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency — is another winner from Kerala.
Sagdeo founded the Swami Vivekananda Medical Mission, which provides medical facilities for tribals, in 1980, after he was invited to Wayanad by the late RSS leader Bhaskar Rao to investigate the prevalence of sickle cell anaemia among tribals of the district.
The Padma awards — Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri — are three of India’s highest civilian honours, after the Bharat Ratna. According to the Padma awards website, the Padma Vibhushan recognises “exceptional and distinguished service”, the Padma Bhushan “distinguished service of higher order”, and Padma Shri “distinguished service”.
This year, too, the Congress has accused the BJP of politicising the process, noting with “disappointment” that a “disproportionate” number of Padma awardees are from poll-bound regions. The BJP has dismissed the “perverse” conclusion.
Experts say the Padma awards have always been used for political signalling, but add that this may have been “taken up a notch” this time around.
“Padma awards have always been political. ‘Distinguished personalities’ is an arbitrary criterion, so people who are pushed by certain lobbies will stand to gain,” said Sumanth C. Raman, a political analyst based in Tamil Nadu.
Raman cited the example of B.B. Lal, who has been awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year. A Delhi-based archaeologist, Lal claimed to have found the remains of a temple under the site of the Babri Masjid before it was razed in 1992.
During the tenure of the Congress-led UPA, Raman said, those who received Padma awards were broadly Left-of-Centre. Now, he added, it is the Right-of-Centre people being awarded.
“The Modi government likes to take everything the previous governments have done one notch higher. So that is what is happening now,” Raman said.
Mujibur Rehman, a political scientist and professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, said the Modi government is indulging in “politicisation” of the awards, but added that it would be “naive” to think it would lead to electoral gains.
“Ideally, any award of national significance should not adhere to any political considerations. The politicisation is, of course, wrong. But to think that it will lead to any electoral gains is naive,” Rehman said.
“The voters don’t look at how many people from their state have been awarded. The BJP has been trying to make an entry into Kerala and Tamil Nadu for some time now, but the possibility of their chances in the two states improving because of these awards is very bleak,” he added.
Congress-BJP war of words
Hitting out at the BJP, the Congress said it is “disappointed”.
“The country’s highest civilian awards should not be dragged into a controversy by any side, but it is a little disappointing that a disproportionate amount of awards have gone to the poll-bound states,” said Congress spokesperson Surpiya Srinate.
“We all know the Modi government uses government agencies and, in this case, even the national awards, for political reasons. Some things should be above politicking, and this is one of them,” she added.
The BJP, however, dismissed all criticism, saying only a “perverse mind could see politics in everything”.
“It reflects a very perverse mindset to suggest that the Padma awards are politically motivated. After all, these five states (and UT) have a very high population too, so it is expected that they will have a high percentage of awardees,” said BJP spokesperson Sudhanshu Mittal.
“When people look to do cheap politics, they find these issues,” he added.